BUILT from the sand up just 42 years ago to become what is now Mexico's No. 1 travel destination, Cancún will likely always conjure images of spring break debauchery. But the city's 17-mile-long hotel-zone peninsula, home to most of its 150 hotels and the site of a $71 million shoreline expansion in 2010, draws everyone from middle-class families to jet-setters. The best place to feel the city's true pulse, though, is in the other Cancún: downtown, in the tangle of mostly tourist-free squares, market stalls and shiny new developments offering their own destination-worthy nightspots, shops and restaurants. Cancún has thus far dodged the bullet of drug-cartel violence: Its home state, Quintana Roo, was one of only 14 to be spared a spot on the State Department's most recent Mexico travel warning.
4:30 p.m.1. EVERYBODY'S PROMENADE
Get a sense of perspective by strolling downtown's Malecón Américas (Avenida Bonampak), a three-quarter-mile paved palm-lined promenade that hugs the shore of the Nichupte Lagoon, which separates this part of town from the hotel zone. It's the newest addition to a development that includes Las Américas Cancun Mall across the street, where locals converge in Mexican chains like the Liverpool department store, and in surprisingly lovely outdoor atriums outfitted with kiddie diversions including a festive carousel. Pop in for a true taste of Cancún living.
6 p.m.2. GONE THE SUN
Sunset watching takes some planning here, as the magic happens lagoonside in the hotel zone, not at the beach. Snag a coveted table at La Habichuela Sunset (Kukulcán Boulevard; kilometer 12.6, 52-998-840-6280; lahabichuela.com), the new outpost of the family-owned downtown favorite, La Habichuela. Whether indoors in the sweeping, high-ceilinged, Mayan-themed dining room with its west-facing wall of glass, or outside on a stone patio leading right up to the lapping waters, you'll have a perfect view. Draw out the afterglow with a mixed seafood ceviche for 145 pesos, or about $11 at 12.8 pesos to the dollar, and a Golden Margarita, 160 pesos, made with 1800 gold tequila and Grand Marnier.
8:30 p.m.3. PASTA AND AFTER
Join in-the-know locals at the festive, quirky Cheester for creative and reasonably priced pizzas and pastas; options include the thin-crusted, salmon-topped pie, for 150 pesos, and, for 120 pesos, the Mama Mia, a pan of linguine, big enough for two, tossed in a cilantro cream sauce. A new location (Las Plazas Outlet; 52-998-880-8080) has sunny yellow walls and tables topped with red-and-white-checked oilcloths, while the original spot (Calle Mazatlàn; 52-998-887-8786) has outdoor seating and graffiti-covered walls. After carb loading, walk around the recently remodeled Parque de las Palapas, the social square of downtown that jumps to life nightly. Go for the live music, arts-and-crafts tables for little ones, food vendors (don't miss the marquesitas, crispy crepes filled with sweetened Edam cheese then rolled up tight) and an infectious happy mood.
11:30 p.m.4. NIGHT LIFE, MIAMI-STYLE
With shimmering new condos, hotels and shopping centers rising along its edges, Avenida Bonampak strives to become the Miami-style Ocean Drive of downtown, with nightspots providing a mellower grown-up answer to Cancún's party-hearty shenanigans. At Plaza Peninsula (Avenida Bonampak 9, plazapeninsula.com), you can find a fresh option on a rooftop: Barezzito Live (52-998-889-9966, barezzitocancun.com), a popular nightclub with pop and rock shows and a breezy alfresco deck that looks toward the hotel zone twinkling in the distance.
9:30 a.m.5. TAKE IT WITH YOU
Hit the main downtown markets: Mercado 23 (SM 23 west of Avenida Tulum) with staples from Oaxacan cheese and fresh papayas to plastic sandals and piñatas, and the side-by-side Mercado 28 and Plaza Bonita (enter Calle Xel-ha, at Sunyaxchen for both), comprising vast mazes of stalls packed with a dizzying array of souvenirs, like embroidered shoulder bags, hand-sewn dolls, tooled leather sandals, Mayan blouses, silver jewelry and woven sun hats. At Pewter Mexicano (Plaza Bonita Local del 4 al 9 "H" Planta Baja), you're spoiled for choice when it comes to sturdy yet elegant plates, bowls, picture frames and ornate serving trays, from 450 pesos, made by hand from shiny pewter.
Noon6. ISLA BONITA
Pack a beach bag and take a day trip to Isla Mujeres, so named for the many images of goddesses found here by the Spanish, left by Mayans who worshiped the fertility goddess Ixchel. To get to the four-mile-long island from downtown Cancún, take a cab to Puerto Juárez (about 100 pesos) or a bus marked Puerto Juárez to the Gran Puerto Cancún ferry terminal (granpuerto.com.mx), where you'll take a 15-minute fast-ferry ride on the UltraMar (140 pesos round-trip). Ferries run from 5 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. every half-hour, then hourly until 11:30 p.m.
12:30 p.m.7. CERAMICS AND YUCCA FRIES
Make a beeline to the center of town, where the main pedestrian street, Avenida Hidalgo, is packed with shops and eateries, including a new wave of businesses opened by global expats. For lunch, try Qubano (Avenida Hidalgo, Plaza los Almendros; 52-998-214-2118), where the Cuban-born, Brooklyn-bred owner serves Cuban sandwiches, fresh yucca fries and terrific salads, or Barlito (Avenida Hidalgo at Abasolo; 52-998-105-2883), where upstate New York transplants produce an impressive array of panini and baked goods. Then shop, hitting two snappy new boutiques: the Argentine-owned Monomalo (Avenida Hidalgo), with striking house-designed tees and brightly colored crafts from Oaxaca, Chiapas and Michoacan; and Galeria L'Mento Arte (Avenida Hidalgo, Plaza los Almendros; 52-998-158-4277), selling jewelry, wood sculptures and ceramics from Spain, Switzerland and beyond.
2 p.m.8. SAND, SUN, TEQUILA
Grab a chaise and umbrella at the hip new Fenix Lounge (52-998-274-0073; fenixisla.com), on North Beach. You can wade into the warm thigh-high water -- or skim across it with a stand-up paddleboard, available for $25 an hour or $50 a day from the new on-site SUPIM: Stand Up Paddle Boarding Isla Mujeres (998-108-5064, supim.com). To say adios to the sinking sun, belly up to the palapa-topped bar for a nibble from the tapas menu; try the patatas bravas (40 pesos), flecked with slivers of smoky guajillo peppers, and a sweet and spicy ginger margarita (80 pesos).
9 p.m.9. BEYOND RICE AND BEANS
Back on the mainland, treat yourself to a feast at Chef Cristian Morales (Avenida Xpuhil; 52-998-251-9145; chefcristianmorales.com). The owner, Mr. Morales, who is from Argentina, prepares and presents his Mexican food within the chandeliered and red-drapery-ensconced dining room of his elegant home. "It's my concept to always take care of my customers," Mr. Morales says of his tableside presence. It's a noteworthy touch, especially since his food -- artfully plated creations like lobster carpaccio with black tomatoes, microgreens tangled with watermelon and goat cheese, cream of corn soup dusted with truffled tortilla ashes, house-made huitlacoche ravioli, blue-cheese-filled chocolate fondant -- takes good care of you all on its own. Entrees start at 220 pesos; a seven-course tasting menu (highly recommended) is 800 pesos per person.
11:30 a.m.10. BARRACUDA!
As you shop around for snorkeling excursions, you'll be tempted to investigate the much touted MUSA: Museo Subacuático de Arte (the Underwater Museum; musacancun.com), which opened with fanfare in 2010. But the sunken sculpture garden of more than 400 permanent life-size creations by the English artist Jason deCaires Taylor is better in concept than reality because of an unfortunately thick algae bloom covering the pieces. Still, if you're curious, there's a tour that includes other stops (preferably around Manchones reef and the lighthouse in Bahía de Mujeres), where you are likely to see a worth-the-hype riot of stingrays, barracudas, sea turtles, angelfish and Technicolor blue tangs.
3 p.m.11. LAST MEAL
Before heading to the airport, grab some antojitos, tasty snacklike savories that make a quick meal, at El Rincón de los Antojos (Calle Luciernaga 356; 52-998-849-2678), an old favorite, with a new location in the quiet Santa Fe neighborhood (Avenida Santa Fe y Rio Amazonas, Plaza Amazonas). Gorditas (fat tortillas stuffed with cheese), pressed sandwiches called pambazo, and quesadillas en comal (grilled cheese quesadillas), just 13 to 30 pesos each, make ideal send-offs.
IF YOU GO
A glossy recent addition to downtown a quick walk from Malecón Americas is the 112-room B2B Hotel (Avenida Sayil SM 4-07; 52-998-848-8000), with contemporary-chic quarters, a rooftop pool and views of downtown and the lagoon. Rooms from 1,299 pesos (about $102).
Part of a newly rebranded Mexican chain, the 152-room Fiesta Inn Cancún Las Americas (Avenida Bonampak; 52-998-891-5650) just opened at the Malecón Americas mall. It has a bright design and color scheme that includes mod lounge furniture and a pool and gym. Rates from around 1,030 pesos.travel
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.